By Danièle Cybulskie
First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room: no one who clicks on Netflix’s new movie The Knight Before Christmas is looking to find a realistic depiction of a medieval knight. They’re looking for a cute, romantic movie to get them in the mood for the holiday season, and that is exactly what this movie delivers.
The Knight Before Christmas is the story of a fourteenth-century knight, Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse), who is transported from 1334 to 2019 as part of a “quest” to become a “true knight”. There, he meets cynical teacher Brooke Winters (yes, Winters – played by Vanessa Hudgens), who lets us know early on just what she thinks of romantic princesses and knights in shining armour. This is your classic fish-out-of-water story, in which Sir Cole has to navigate the modern world and win Brooke’s heart in order to return to his own time – but will he want to?
Most movies that purport to have something to do with the Middle Ages are getting better and better with their sets, props, and costumes, and Netflix has really done well with this lately in the form of Outlaw King and The King. The Knight Before Christmas (which I’m now definitely shortening to TKBC in order to save time) doesn’t bother with that sort of realism at all, but is content to go with Christmas-pageant colours, costumes, and props for the parts set in the past, with Cole being truly a knight in shining armour. But there are some moments that do ring true in what they do with Sir Cole’s story and background.
(Aside: I get that Cole is a trendier name than most actual medieval ones, but “Sir Cole” kept getting squashed together in the actors’ mouths until it continually sounded like “circle”. Of course that made me think of the old joke about Sir Cumference, knight of the Round Table. I half wondered the whole time if the scriptwriters were messing with me.)
Oddly, Cole comes from a very specific time and place: Norwich, December 18, 1334. He even says he was knighted “six years ago” by Edward III, which fits. When he is sympathizing with Brooke over the loss of her parents, he mentions that he hasn’t seen his own since he was sent away to be a squire, something else that would be plausible. He can cut down a thin Christmas tree cleanly with one stroke of an axe, and he marvels at the amount of food available in a grocery store. He’s enamoured with hot chocolate (which he definitely would never have tasted as a real medieval knight). He even asks to have a bath. All of this works, and subtly gets at a more complex medieval world.
On the other hand, there are some predictably cringey moments, such as when Cole wanders around addressing elderly women as “crones” or “wenches”, or when he calls hot chocolate mead because that’s a medieval word for drink, right?
But considering what I thought we were in for (more of that sort of thing), TKBC allows its titular knight to be much more of a human being, and less of a caricature than I think we’re used to. Cole is quick and eager to learn, accepting that things are different in the future, and adapting. He learns to use Alexa. He figures out the remote control for the TV. He even tries his hand at driving. He doesn’t accuse anybody or anything of being unnatural or witchcraft. He follows along with social cues, and plays along with modern people’s behaviour. He rescues people and does the right thing because he’s a good knight. It’s almost odd that Brooke is continually asking why his actions haven’t yet met the requirements for his quest, as if helping out isn’t something to be expected of everyone (especially a good knight). But it allows the two of them to continue puzzling about what he does need to do to break the enchantment – obviously, neither of them have watched this kind of movie before.
There are moments in here that will confuse modern viewers about the medieval world; namely, that there is a knight’s “code” for people to follow. Although there’s often been reference to a “code of chivalry”, this was never a thing that people wrote down or agreed upon in the real Middle Ages. In fact, modern historians still can’t agree on everything chivalry entailed. Cole gets at love, purity, mercy – these are all knightly virtues, but his code is made up for this movie. The same with this Yuletide bean wishing bread, as far as I know (although it is a thousand-year period – you can correct me if I’m wrong).
Overall, though, this movie is much gentler with medieval stereotypes than I ever expected it to be. Beyond that, it hits all the expected and required notes for a holiday movie: perfectly cooperative soap flake weather for drama; stylish and expensive-looking sweaters; dialogue straight out of a greeting card; happily ever after. Hudgens does her best to walk the tightrope of a script she knows is cheesy, Whitehouse is perfectly charming. This is bubblegum entertainment, and we all know it. And it’s perfect for medieval fans needing a chill-out, feel-good movie to unwind during the holiday season.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Courtesy Netflix